Today’s craft beer culture is all about tasting a variety of beers, not just drinking lots of the same one over and over again.
The best way to do this is a sample flight of several small glasses, which most breweries in BC offer in their tasting rooms. Four or five samplers usually work out to the equivalent of an imperial pint, but you actually get to taste several different beers.
Beer comes in a wide variety of styles and colours. Some are big and bold while others are light and easy; some are richly malty while others burst with citrusy aromas; some are purposefully sour while others might even be slightly salty. In other words, there’s a beer for everyone, and half the fun in tasting craft beer is exploring the incredible range of options at breweries and tap houses.
If you’re uncertain about how to approach tasting beer, here’s some advice from the BC Ale Trail.
Look at the beer. What colour is it? A darker beer might imply flavours of roasted coffee or chocolate, though not always, while a lighter coloured beer might be more bready or grainy. Is it clear or cloudy or something in between? Though many beer styles should pour crystal clear, others like hefeweizens or hazy IPAs are meant to have yeast in suspension so they should be cloudy. How about the head? Depending on the style of beer, it might be creamy like meringue or more bubbly like a bubble bath.
Next, swirl the glass a bit and smell the beer. Start at a distance and do a “drive-by” with your nose — in other words, don’t stick your nose right in the glass right away. Move the glass closer until the beer is right under your nose, and sniff it gently. What do you smell? Hoppier beers might exhibit aromas of pine, fruit or citrus, while maltier beers might have lighter smells of bread, grain or caramel.
Finally, the best part: take a sip and think about what you taste. Malty flavours might some across biscuity, toasty or nutty. Hops can generate bitterness as well as tropical, citrusy flavours. The yeast might give it an extra spicy zing or even a banana/clove-like flavour in the case of German or Belgian wheat beers.
How does the beer feel in your mouth: is it creamy or crisp; does it finish dry; does it have an enticing aftertaste that makes you want to take another sip?
Think and Talk About It
Brewery tasting rooms are very social places — people love to talk about the beers they’re tasting, compare notes and share opinions. What do you like about the beer? Maybe it’s the big burst of citrusy hops in an IPA or perhaps you really enjoyed the oaky, vanilla character in a barrel-aged beer. Did you find the beer well balanced or too extreme in one aspect? What sort of food can you imagine going well with it? Would you recommend it to someone else?
At first, you might find it difficult to answer some of these questions, but the more you practise — and by practice, we mean drinking beer — the more you ask yourself these questions as you try different beers, the more you will learn about them, and the more you will learn about what sort of beer you like best.
Beer Tasting FAQs
1. Do breweries usually offer tasting flights? What is typically included in a flight?
Many craft breweries in BC welcome visitors in tasting rooms, and most offer “tasting flights” of three or four of their beers served in small sample-size glasses. Usually, the brewery staff will present an assortment of their regular beer line-up to give you a good overview of what they brew, but sometimes they will leave it up to you to decide what you want to try. This is a great way to taste several different types of beer without drinking too much. It’s always good to ask for advice if you’re unsure of what to try.
2. Is there a particular order to taste beer in?
There are no hard-and-fast rules to this, but the best bet is to start light and go darker from there. If you order a flight of three or four small glasses of beer, usually the server will present them to you in that order. But it is also important to consider the alcohol content and how hoppy the beers are. A light-coloured beer could still be very strong and hoppy—and if you drink it first you might overwhelm your palate, making it difficult to taste other beers—while a dark beer could actually be very mild in flavour. Usually, the bartender or server will let you know the best order.
3. If I like a particular type of beer, how would I make the leap to something different, but not TOO different?
Once you discover a beer style you really enjoy, the easiest way to experiment is to look for the same style of beer produced by another brewery. It’s going to be slightly different, because each brewer will put their own spin on the style, using a slightly different recipe and perhaps some different techniques, but you may find you like the new beer even more. Another good approach is to try another beer from the same brewery. Every brewery has its own character so you may find that you really like a certain brewery’s all-round approach.
Ask the bartender or server for a suggestion based on what you like. The folks who work at craft breweries and tap houses are generally very knowledgeable and experienced when it comes to beer so they will likely have some great beers to suggest.
4. I’m worried I don’t know enough about beer. I don’t want to look foolish.
Relax. The craft beer community is very welcoming and unpretentious. Sure, there are “beer geeks” out there who know an awful lot about beer and may turn their noses up at certain breweries or beer styles, but generally speaking, most people you’ll meet at a craft brewery or taphouse will be happy to share what they know or recommend beers they like.
5. Is it expensive to explore craft beer through tastings?
Not really. Beer has always been the most democratic of alcoholic beverages, meant to be accessible by anyone, so it is generally not very expensive. Of course, as craft beer has grown in popularity in recent years, breweries have started to produce beers that require more expensive ingredients or longer times spent aging in barrels, perhaps. Beers like that will come with a higher price tag, but generally speaking, it will still likely be lower than fine wine or spirits.
To learn more about beer tasting or beer in general, there are lots of great books out there, including my book, Craft Beer Revolution: The Insider’s Guide to B.C. Breweries. Look for a beer tasting seminar or course at your local private liquor store, community centre or college. Check out more of our blogs and podcasts to learn more about beer trends, breweries, and some of the people involved in the community.
Another way to taste a wide range of beers in one place is at a beer festival — check out our schedule of events here. To learn more about the brewing process, perhaps take a guided tour of a brewery.
See you on the BC Ale Trail!